Making an immersive 3D shooter on any platform is quite an undertaking, but this is especially true on the 3DS. There are some of these titles available on the platform, but they aren't as popular as many other genres. This makes the elusive quality shooter on 3DS even more valuable, and as a result, games like Iron Combat: War in the Air stand out even more. While the premise is simple, there's plenty of room for experimentation and customization. This title is a bit pricier than the average budget eShop game, but is the cost justified by the experience?
Iron Combat tells the story of an android tasked with fighting in a mysterious war taking place on a scarred and traumatized Earth, who also happens to be our protagonist. With help from an eye in the sky, players must take down enemy ships and tanks - the mechanics require a bit of learning as the controls are somewhat unintuitive, but with a little effort everything "clicks." One of the basics of maneuvering here includes switching between two forms: a faster, jet-like form which can fly freely in the air, and a humanoid form sporting a slash attack which must use boosts to increase altitude (failing to maintain altitude will bring players on the ground). The first form is better for taking down flying enemies and moving quickly, whereas the latter is advised for hand-to-hand combat with slower enemies on the ground.
Switching between forms feels somewhat odd at first, thanks largely to how we had to remember to maintain altitude; it's quite easy to forget that the character is slowly falling all the time when in the humanoid form. Once players focus on the game environment, the tasks laid out in each mission become not only manageable, but addictingly fun. Switching between the two forms to effectively manage waves of enemies is very satisfying.
This does not mean, however, that the game is without its frustrations. The difficulty can be quite harsh at first, and since our performance in a level determined the amount of in-game currency we earned, it was difficult to buy upgrades without grinding for money. Fortunately, when we began to get into the swing of completing a mission with a high rank, this opened up the way for customizing our fighter in a great number of ways.
Upgrading is a balancing act of lowering some stats while raising others, allowing for players to tackle levels in whatever style they see fit. This aspect of the character management gives the campaign some longevity, which is fortunate since the story mode ended a little before we were ready. Each mission can be replayed in a free play mode, which is also appreciated. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot to do after the credits roll. A multiplayer mode (online or otherwise) seemed like something the game would benefit from greatly, but unless players are interested in complete mastery of all the campaign's levels, Iron Combat boasts almost no reason to keep going when finished with the story. This is possibly the biggest problem with it, since the game's mechanics are too much fun to let go to such little use.
The visual presentation, while altogether unremarkable, is clean with a nice UI; the 3D effect is utilized nicely here as well. Unfortunately there's not a great deal of variety in enemy or environment types. The music becomes somewhat repetitive, but not so much that it removed us from the action. The Japanese audio has gone unlocalized, with publisher Teyon opting for subtitles rather than a full dub. This could either be charming or frustrating to players depending on their preferences (though for us it was the former). The story here is not terribly novel or groundbreaking, but it serves its purpose well and the characters are endearing. Though, the option to skip the opening dialogue when replaying missions would have been appreciated.
Iron Combat is a well put together - if not an ambitious - game, which takes mechanics from other shooter action games and adds a unique twist to them. The campaign, though fun while it lasts, is of average length, which stings even more considering the asking price and the lack of much replayability. Additionally, the learning curve is rather unforgivable at times. For those willing to put in a bit of practice, and who can get a kick out of score chasing the same levels over and over, it is nevertheless tempting. Iron Combat's greatest offence, such as it is, is not putting to proper use the truly fun mechanics it introduces; this isn't necessarily a reason not to buy it, but it should be considered for those looking for a lengthier experience.